Titular and Devilish: Max McLean on 'The Screwtape Letters'

December 24, 2009

IT MAY BE WELL KNOWN and much loved, but C.S. Lewis‘ fictional collection of demonic correspondence, “The Screwtape Letters,” doesn’t immediately appear to be fit for the stage. Max McLean, who stars in (as the titular devilish writer) and helped adapt the theatrical version of Lewis’ famed epistolary novel, knows better.

» EXPRESS: What attracted you to “The Screwtape Letters”?
» MCLEAN: I read the book in my early 20s and I said, “Oh, I know this guy.” Jeff Fisk saw me do a solo production of the Book of Genesis about eight years ago. He liked it, and I got an e-mail from him the next day that said, “I think you would make a great Screwtape.” I didn’t know whether that was a compliment or not, but that got a conversation going because it never occurred to me that it could be a theater piece.

» EXPRESS: Was it a challenge to adapt?
» MCLEAN: Yes it was, and we made many mistakes. “Screwtape” has had a pretty long journey — today it’s December of ’09, and we started in the spring of ’05. Most people read “The Screwtape Letters as a “bite-and-chew” book — you know, you sit with a glass of port, read a page, think about it and go on to the next page. What happens, though, is you miss the story that’s buried within there, which is simply a senior demon instructing a junior demon on how to hunt down, trap and finally devour a human soul that recently converted to Christianity.

» EXPRESS: The play takes place in hell. How do you stage that?
» MCLEAN: We have a little corner office in hell.The set designer, Cameron Anderson, had spent some time in the catacombs the summer before we hired her. She found some images there that really resonated with her, and she put this thing with skulls and bones up on the wall and on the floor. Of course, if the idea is to hunt and eat, that would be the remains of hunting and eating. That was the basic set design, and then we had these lavish costumes because there’s this element of the idea of pride — Screwtape is all drama and glitz.

» EXPRESS: How have non-churchgoing folks responded to the piece?
» MCLEAN: Well, they keep coming.

» Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 7th St. NW; through Jan. 10, $20-$60; 202-547-1122. (Gallery Place-Chinatown)

Written by Express contributor Ryan Little
Photos courtesy Jonny Knight and Jerry Goodstein

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Greg Barber | December 24, 2009